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Nature or nurture: Can leadership be taught?

Everyone has an assumption of what a good ‘leader’ is – confident, highly visible and innovative. But these desirable traits are not easy to come by for anyone in the business world, which leads to the question: can these traits be learned or are leaders simply born with them?

There’s no doubt that some people are naturally more adept to leading than others. The quiet and meek will struggle to make strides in comparison to those people who exude confidence at every level. That doesn’t rule out those without the ‘usual’ management personality traits, however (an outdated idea in itself). An unconventional person lacking natural confidence may not initially be seen as a realistic candidate, but if they have the industry knowledge and experience, there is little reason for them not to lead.

Bill Gates is one of the most recognisable leaders from the 20th century, yet for all intents and purposes he never really fit the mould of a ‘leader’. He’s far from a bad speaker, but he’s also not brimming with the charisma of someone like JFK. His success came from his exceptional knowledge of his product and technology in general.

As University College London found in an academic report, “What determines whether an individual occupies a leadership position is the complex product of genetic and environmental influences.” Confidence is great, but competence is equally important.

Graham Mole makes a great point in his chapter in ‘Leadership in organisations’, saying that the idea of a ‘born leader’ is term that has stuck around despite a distinct lack of evidence to back it up. He goes on to say that “leadership cannot be taught as though it were a context-free subject… [it] cannot be treated as though it were a portable set of knowledge, skills and attitudes; what works in one context may be conspicuously unsuccessful in another”.

Some people will always have attributes that translate well into the world of management, but that means very little if their knowledge of their product and staff is mediocre. Differences in the structures of businesses, and the services that they provide, mean that no one leader can be the same.

At Joseph Executive Search we believe that the ‘ideal’ leader is somewhat of a myth, but if we were to try and describe them, they would have the perfect mix between natural charisma and genuine intellect about what they do. Some leaders want to rely on flash, on charisma, whilst others may want to establish themselves as a straight-laced thought leader. Really, the only way a leader can truly gauge the correct approach is through experience – which no one is born with.

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